Realities of the profession (writing), part 1

Introducing an occasional series about the challenges (and satisfactions?) of freelancing on the arts — An exchange with Dr. Lewis Porter, jazz pianist, professor of music at Rutgers University (NJ) and founder/director of that school’s Master’s in Jazz History and Research Program (also biographer of John Coltrane, on book advances, academic vs.commercial publishers, working cheap and pressing for more.

Porter, who I consider a colleague (though no, he is not a journalist and describes himself as a “part-time writer) and pal, recently wrote to me asking to recommend writers for a book-length history of jazz in a major U.S. city, to be published by a university press, which “only has about $2,000 (maybe a little more) to offer as an advance.”
I endorsed the authors he was thinking of but objected: “It’s ridiculous for any press, university or otherwise, to offer only $2000 for a book to anybody, and I don’t think anyone you mentioned ought to do it for that amount, either. A book such as you propose ought to be worth (even in this market) more than 2 weeks’ pay.”
LP: “You have to look at it this way: It’s not a question of what such a book is worth, but what the university press can pay. I know their budget is paltry. You could convincingly argue that they are trying to buy something that they can’t afford, but not that they are holding back on the bucks.
“Half the point of a university job like mine is that your salary is clearly understood to pay for the time you put into writing, so advances are great but not dealbreakers. I got an even lower advance for my Trane book — but it has sold amazingly well for a jazz book (some 13,000 copies to date) so I have made my money. An advance is just an advance after all — it’s not really what you are getting paid for the book — you do get your money eventually if the book sells. On my new Coltrane reference book from Routledge, all five authors share an advance like what I got for the Coltrane book, and as editor I received check equal to one of their shares!! FYI, I tried several other publishers, but none could even afford to consider the book (it’s 900 pages long!).
“I realize that the academic model doesn’t apply for freelancers. But bottom line — if some writer goes into with his eyes open and wants to do it, nobody is being taken advantage of.”
HM: As my book Miles, Ornette, Cecil – Jazz Beyond Jazz is being published by Routledge fairly soon (I’m proofreading and creating the index now), my response is unavoidably subjective. But it’s entirely untenable for a freelance writer to work for wages that would be an insult to any self-respecting carpenter, plumber, tailor or exterminator. If university presses (and those like Routledge which operate on a similar model) revert to publishing scholarly and academic works, using only fulltime faculty, and everybody’s happy – fine. If they want to serve as trade publishers – the case for Routledge, and Oxford University Press (publisher of my book Future Jazz) — working with writers who seek access to general readership — they have to go a long way to rethink typical marketing and promotions campaigns.
LP: This is key. First of all, as we both know Howard, payment for writing a book is not “wages”–it’s just not an appropriate word. Even the most successful author’s pay is dependent on sales, and the advance is really the publisher’s conservative estimate of sales, known as an “advance against future royalties” — you don’t really know what you’ll make until the book is selling. Academic presses, unlike commercial ones, are on such tight budgets that they can’t afford to be wrong about potential sales. Therefore their advances are minimal, and I have always made much more in royalties (thank God!). So this doesn’t compare in any way to the concepts of “wage” and “salary,” where you have a guaranteed income for the job. I’m not saying that this is good! — just that it’s not “wages.” This can go either way–it’s very rare, but on occasion an author has been asked to give back part of the advance.
HM: The advance is the only income a freelance writer is guaranteed, as ever lower print-runs and lesser shelf-space lead to quick backlisting of modest but maybe steady-selling authors (who used to be the “mid-list”). To the publisher, the advance must represent some point of profit or breaking even or acceptable loss. It is the lowest they can get away with paying, against a promise of sales that they may or may note deliver. A writer who accepts an advance thinking it’s only part of his financial compensation for the time/labor involved is gambling against most current experience, as this
report from the Authors Guild substantiates.
Please note that publishers are responsible for selling the books they print, not writers, who are only responsible for writing them. If the publisher does not think the book it is contracting for can support a livable wage, it should not be assigning the commission. Of course it’s up to the given writer – if you insist on taking less than your work is worth, for a publisher whose low estimation is based on their usual habit of not selling many books by authors such as you, and can afford to give your all plus some more to a topic you are dying to examine, whether the bills are covered or not – good for you. But as president of a professional organization with many freelancers, and a freelancer myself, I would discourage anyone who’s not in that position to refuse to write a book for an advance of $2000. Such a small advance indicates the publisher does not believe the book will be profitable, and such beliefs have a way of playing out as self-fulfilling prophecies.
LP: I tend to be more of a realist and I accept that in the current market many jazz books will not sell many copies, no matter how well they are promoted. My experience not only as an author but as editor of a series of books at U of Michigan press tells me this is true, and no fault of the publisher (at least in this case — Michigan works hard for their authors, but I know that some publishers don’t). Jazz books sell about the same as jazz cds. A jazz book that sells more than 2,000 copies is actually doing well, and that’s a fact!! Second of all, university presses don’t need to “revert” to using fulltime faculty–they still primarily do that.
HM: I wrote “only,” and referred to a decision university publishers have not made to retreat from a larger market of writers that includes professional writers, offered the same level of advance fulltime faculty are receiving. You asked me to ok freelance writers, being hired by a university press. I’m talking about professional conditions.
LP: And Routledge and Oxford are precisely not examples of University presses — Routledge because it’s a scholarly press but not affiliated with any university, Oxford because the late Sheldon Meyer, editor, essentially separated its jazz catalog from the “university” part and relied on professional writers like yourself. (Secret–he once asked to see my Coltrane work in progress, before I had a publisher, and eventually rejected it as “too scholarly”!!! That was his “bad”–I believe it has sold more than any Oxford jazz book ever.)
HM: The processes regarding marketing and sales at Routledge and Oxford are not comparable to what good commercial publishers do, and much closer to the university press sphere. No?
LP: My sense is that this is true of Routledge but that Oxford is not a typical university press, and that they aggressively market their books. I could be wrong on that.
HM: Does your Trane book sell mostly for use in college courses, or in general retail bookstores?
LP: I’m not sure what anwer you expected here, but my sales have entirely been in general shops/websites like Borders, and almost zero were used as textbooks (nor was it intended to be a textbook).
HM: It will be interesting to see what happens to its sales when New York Times staffer Ben Ratliff’s book on John Coltrane is published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in autumn. May they both sell raftfuls.
A book takes months to write, and sometimes years to research – a few hundred or a couple thousand in advance won’t cover food and rent over the period, much less health insurance, computer repairs and printer cartridges.
LP: OK–let’s hold it there for a moment. Let’s just acknowledge that the kind of books I did simply cannot be done by someone without university (or some other) support. There’s not a chance in hell I ever would have finished any of my books if Rutgers hadn’t given me a semester off from teaching to finish each one. My professional writer friends — probably yourself included — have said to me more than once that they wish they had the luxury to work at the level of detail that I do–but they simply don’t have the financial support. (Please note — I am not a professional writer and never have been. I am a jazz pianist and jazz educator who sometimes writes about jazz.)
On the other hand, there are authors who spin out a different kind of book in a much shorter time, for a commcercial press, and can command a much higher advance for it that I ever will. So, what are we talking about here? That you and others want to “break in” to the no-money university press field, rather than continue to collect much larger advances from commercial presses? Am I losing my mind here?
HM: I hope not, but think about it: Professional writers have to do the work without the institutional support. Some crank out quickie books for mass market publishers and make great bucks (name one of those who has written about jazz). The rest do indeed invest considerable time, energy and expense money to attain a publishable “level of detail,” which outside academia means writing books to be read for pleasure rather than assigned for study (at the best, all are both).
Due to changes in publishing and media in general, the concept of the small but steady selling book is gone with the wind. That makes it harder for freelance writers, who try to live off of writing. Anyone who accepts a non-professional fee for professional-level work is a market-spoiler, to use a word i admit may seem provocative. Such writers may have their own purposes for publication, including genuinely having something they have to say. There is much work that is subsidized — if not by tenured positions and grants, by day-gigs and second careers, legacies and better-employed spouses. But to professionalize book publishing, pay writers professionally viable fees.
Most people writing about jazz right now have no hope of landing a contract with a commercial press; those firms typically abjure presumably low-selling jazz and other works of serious, specialist non-fiction. Freelancers are publishing where they can find interest in what they’ve got to say when they engage with a university press – and in the case we started with, this is a book the university press wants, and is in search of someone (good) to write. My experience trying to negotiate an advance I could live on while writing a book, or negotiating a way to help sell a book when the publisher’s staff has seemed clueless, has been the same at Oxford, Da Capo, Chicago Review Press and Routledge so far. They work to get the book out, promise not to give it much support – “Look what it’s about!” they seem to say and move on to the next book to get out. Meanwhile, the publishers, editors, etc. aren’t gambling on what they’re getting paid based on book sales – they get regular wages, at a much higher hourly rate than the writer did with the “advance” pro-rated to the hours spent writing the book, which it’s up to the publisher to market in order to get the writer more money – royalties. If nobody but the writer needs that money – not the university/scholarly press, not the editors/publishing employees – they’re not going to bust chops to make it.
Freelance writers who teach (as I do at NYU, and have also at the New School jazz program) are usually adjuncts, paid at a much lower rate than fulltime faculty, and receive few if any benefits. Scholars’ research should be impeccable, as should freelancers’, but their writing styles tend to run the gamut from ok to unreadable, whereas freelance writers depend on their ability to produce snappy, engaging cogent prose. Most scholarly books do not sell more than their advances, nor are they expected to — their market is libraries (unless they are text books), not bookstores.
Freelance writers, without regular paychecks, have to try harder. Academic presses – which exist at the pleasure of universities, not the reaction of readers, and so don’t aspire to an entrepreneurial, profit-driven business model – so far in my experience don’t much care if we do. But they want our books, and we want to get published. So how ’bout offering a decent advance, and figuring out how to sell some books?
LP: Hmm–interesting. I see what you’re saying. If they gave the author a higher advance, then they’d really be sweating to make it back, and they’ll work hard to sell the book. There is surely some truth in this, and even university presses have some leeway in their budgets.
I have a suggestion–let an agent negotiate for you. Even with university presses (I know writers commonly use agents with commercial presses). Friends have told me that by using an agent they got university presses to raise their advances, for example in one case from $1500 to $4000. (It’s still small money but percentage-wise it’s a big difference.)
But also, I’d say be realistic–they’re not going to go from $1500 to $15,000–they truly do not have the money, and they’re not lying. Many of their books sell 500 copies or less, even with heavy promotion. Not that i’m trying to get gigs for agents, but perhaps this would help the situation somewhat?
HM: Most agents will not touch a bid for $4000, either. Their 15% amounts to $600, which is a too-significant bite for the writer at that level. My Miles, Ornette, Cecil book was shopped briefly by an agent, who upon getting “no” from a couple of commercial publishers, told me I may as well accept what Routledge offered, he couldn’t do better for me. Agents and packagers at the Jazz Journalists Association’s panels on this topic have said the same thing.
And I don’t think there’s anything realistic about accepting the low expectations of publishers/editors as the final word. That’s why I’ll put energy into promoting my upcoming book myself, as I undertook a personal tour, readings, round of radio and print interviews for Future Jazz — which sold out both its hardbound and paperback editions in 18 months, but Oxford declined to print more — thus determining the book’s profitability was over, for Oxford and for me, too. I trust if Routledge finds the book is selling, it will print more; presumably they can order, print and distribute more quickly if inventory is reported as sold-through. Miles, Ornette, Cecil is currently scheduled to arrive in bookstores 12/7/07.
Lewis Porter performs (on synthesizer!) with drummer Rudy Royston, and bassist Ryan Berg) Friday August 10 at Big Apple, 2236 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. between W.131 and W.132 Streets, 8:30-11pm, $10, and with his piano trio on Monday night August 27 at Cornelia Street Café in Greenwhich Village, celebrating his new CD Italian Encounter (live in Italy, on the Altrisuoni label).

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  1. says

    These types of fees aren’t limited to jazz writing. I recently was offered a chapter in a travel book (major publisher) for a fee that is equivalent to a couple of days of freelance writing for a corporate client.
    Why should book publishers offer so little, and yet expect the same level of expertise, care and experience that a writer would bring to a corporate brochure, speech or news release?

  2. says

    I got a kick out of reading your exchange with Lewis Porter. Most jazz musicians work for peanuts, too. Where is the outrage there? Furthermore, a fair percentage of the indie jazz record business routinely uses a model whereby the artist is not only responsible for recording costs, a finished master, musician fees,and an expensive indie promoter, but half or more of the actual CDs- which I suppose explains why so many artists are going DIY.

  3. Howard says

    Well yeah, I start from the basis of acknowledging jazz musicians are ill paid (although I had a conversation with a well-known booking agent a couple weeks ago in which he claimed that the top echelon of musicians and many of the second-tier names, too, were harming the entire field by demanding untoward fees for performing and recording, and not doing much to bring along lesser known players, either).
    You might say a blog is synonymous with DIY recording projects (I’ve been involved as liner note writer with some fine ones this past year by guitarist Chris Jentsch, alto saxophonist Rob Reddy and exploded-guitarist Hans Tammen, whose quartet live at the Knitting Factory was released on ESP) except that there is some modest income from records sold off the stand or from websites, none (directly) from online postings. Getting a book published by a reputable publisher ought to be like having a record on an established indie label, though. Universities have $, whether they care to spend it on authors, professors or real estate. Yes, university overheads are high, but they’ve adjusted tuitions to cope with that fact, and in New York University, the one I work for as an adjunct, is just putting up ever more dormitories in the East Village, thenselves money-makers in the not-too-long run.

  4. says

    Speaking as we are of the “reality of the profession,” let’s expand on your statement here, Howard:
    The advance is the only income a freelance writer is guaranteed
    In fact, the advance is the only income that the vast majority of writers EVER see from their books. Submitting work on the assumption that you’re going to make money from sales of the book is indeed a gamble, and one that a knowledgeable gambler would never take.
    But on the other hand, some of this varies depending on the subject and/or publishing house, doesn’t it? In the world of smaller, niche publishers, many don’t give advances at all, and those that do tend to be very small (as in less than $1K). And one tends to have a pretty good idea, when he/she starts work on a book, whether it’s going to have mass-market or niche-market appeal.
    University publishers, however, don’t have much excuse as far as I can see…particularly because most universities put so much pressure on their faculty and graduate students to publish. (Obviously those people aren’t limited to publishing on their own university’s imprint, but surely the school should be providing some incentive to its in-house authors? A small advance ain’t gonna do it.)

  5. Howard says

    Mike, you’re right — as that Author’s Guild report explains, most writers never see any more $ than the advance. Lew’s story of his Coltrane bio, which is indeed a scholarly rather than a “popular” text and was indeed published by a University press (Michigan) and has sold far in excess of its initial print run and so been financially good for him is an anomaly.
    About knowing what you’re getting into: Sort of. Marketing plans, print runs, etc. have been discussed with me after contracts have signed, though there’s sometimes been vague discussion before hand. I’ve known I’m not contracting with Simon & Shuster. But still — Marketing dept’s expectations are low as the sales forces’ are. They probably should be conservative, but they are expecting the product to fail, and as I said to Lew, self-fulfilling their prophecies.
    In my experience so far, it’s difficult to light a fire for the book in or out of the office — but if you do manage to, you hope the publisher will step up and print books in a timely way, deliver them quickly, see where it’s selling and why, exploit that, support it. Rather than feel it’s a nusiance to do anything beyond the basic. More on this in the months to come!